Girls and Gears: The Problems with Male Mechaphilia

“This is a male thing […] With man stuff, the bigger the better. That’s been understood since the dawn of time. You’ve no business messing with our tradition.”

Squad Leader Charles Brenten, Dominion Tank Police

Being a man in a fanbase affords you some privileges. You’re the gender often assumed for random people online. You’re much less likely to be sexually harassment by other random people online. When you’re into something technical or technological, many would see it as natural; that there’s something ‘manly’ about science and such. From hobbies to career paths, a lot of people still look down on women taking ‘boys toys’ into their hands.  One only has to look at the experiences of Jackie Lee (cis female) or Emma Handy (trans mtf) in Magic: The Gathering, or at recent statistics that show the engineering workforce at less than 10 percent female, and the similarly unsatisfactory percentage of women in the tech divisions of leading companies: Microsoft at 16.6 percent, Twitter at 10 percent, Google at 17. At the time of writing this article, global super-firm EY estimates that the tech industry worldwide will only reach gender parity in 170 years.

There are a lot of underlying pressures that keep certain hobbies gendered. It comes into the anime fandom too; when women want to hold a conversation about concerns over anime and people disagree with their work, rather than propose a discussion or critique them from afar, some fans will choose to directly tell them to go back to the kitchen, or kill themselves. It can leave an impression that anime is a ‘boys club’ that wants to keep women out, even though otaku culture in Japan was largely built upon female otaku. In the eyes of Patrick W. Galbraith, we “seem to suffer from collective amnesia” regarding the huge effect women had on the culture we see today (Galbraith and Lamarre, 2010: 369), and Kaichiro Morikawa agrees, noting that to this day “more than half of the otaku population in Japan is female” (Morikawa 2012: 13). Likewise, Japanese women fought to protect manga from the UN’s proposed censorship because it was a world they had built themselves. But I don’t blame the women in our fandom, having people tie their gender to their desire to discuss anime critically, for feeling like men are colluding as a homosocial monster against them. At times I’ve contributed to some of that image myself.

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The Gundam fandom is one place where issues of women in technology and women into anime meet. A survey of women on r/Gundam revealed that, while many fans identifying as female found the franchise to be ‘progressive’ in a number of ways, some stigmas remained for them as fans. Some felt out of their element. Others felt like they had to avoid mentioning their gender. In real-life interactions, one fan noted:

I find my questions at conventions are often treated as if I need the beginner tutorial instead of actually answering the questions.

These experiences map onto some of the concerns I’ve had watching Gundam Build Fighters. As much as the show depicts women ‘into’ Gundam, it does so through asserting the world as a masculine space. Aila Jyrkiäinen, the main female competitor, is disinterested in Gundam and only proficient because of technology enhancing her capabilities – technology in the hands of a high-class industry we see dominated by men. The interest she gains over the series is largely from the agency of Reiji, who represents a natural and instinctive passion for blowing shit up with robots. It’s a choice between two approaches to mecha, and both of them are bound up in male iconography.

It’s worse with China, the newcomer to Gundam and the ‘love interest’ of Sei, who gets her own episode within which Sei and Reiji teach her Gundam building before she enters a small girls’ tournament. How does she win, miraculously? She chooses to stuff her teddy bear robot with cotton; her design reaches closer to the thing she loves outside of Gundam (her artwork that inspired the design) than it does into the Gundam itself. There is a clear ‘world’ of Gundam that male participants draw from and maintain; every machine is built with reference a sprawling history of designs and battles. But China’s Gundam is built with primary reference to herself and her own, personal world; she’s aesthetic over tradition and function, when for male machinists and  aesthetic is tradition and function. This reads too strongly of the conventional binary that pits men as machinists and women as the ones in charge of the paint job, something I saw all too often in teams from the last two seasons of BBC’s reboot of Robot Wars.

Last we have Kirara who, like China, enters the world of Gundam for a purpose other than mecha – for her fame as an idol. She likewise learns to enjoy Gundam more through the men she observes, and completes the impression that the first season of Build Fighters is clasped in masculine hands. This doesn’t disappear in Try, either; Kaoruko Sazaki, front-girl of the Song Dynasty Vase team, inherited her Gundam obsession from her brother, and beyond her participation in battles, she has to develop romantic feelings for Sekai to stay relevant.

If Aila, China and Kirara are written to draw female fans into identitifcation, they fail at giving them a will independent from the masculine authority that dominates the Gundam scene. As well as being opportunities for male fans to enjoy the privilege of educator (with their rise gundam-interest often paralleling romantic interest), they are female bodies taking on the minds of men, and would likely be read more productively as sites for male identification rather than female. Curiously, this fits an observation of the history of mecha by Thomas Lamarre on the ‘shojo-ification’ of the ‘boy-mecha interface’:

“with the emergence of psionic interfaces, control of the giant robot becomes less a matter of masculine will and physical abilities and more a question of an empathic connection, of feelings and emotions. Boy pilots become gradually feminized in the sense that operating mecha demand that they be in touch with their feelings and prone to affective communication in a manner previously coded as feminine. The crisis in the movement-image (in the overall coordinating action-image) implies a crisis in masculinity. Girl pilots become more common—and sexy (as in Bubble Gum Crisis OAV, 1987–91). Evangelion takes this development to its logical extreme: most of the ace mecha pilots are girls, and the one boy pilot, Ikari Shinji, is the antithesis of masculine virtues.” (Lamarre, 2009: 216)

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Shinji is a massive comment on the idea and identity of otaku in the late 90s, but many ‘feminized’ characters are far more conservative towards perversions. In the currently-airing Frame Arms Girl (hereafter appropriately abbreviated to FAG), the protagonist is female, but is evidently more targeted as a surrogate for male otaku identification. To charge her moe mecha girl, Ao has to insert the plug into a hole a little above the toy’s butthole, creating a parody of anal insertion (there’s definitely a Chobits reference here somewhere). It would have been interesting if her toy had not reacted to being charged in this way at all, but the stifled moan clarifies that this is pornography primarily for the feminized male otaku, inserting either into the moe girl builder or the moe girl mecha.

The female body allows viewers to approach their perversion (in this case, mecha-musume) in a similar fashion to Sagiri’s obsession with underwear and the erotic in Eromanga-sensei; we can enjoy voyeurism coded as masculine in a body actualized as female. This could go as far as an attempt to to escape the stigma of these things being seen as ‘male’ perspectives, to further the drive to escape Japan’s fixed masculinity that we see in the moe affect. I have nothing against this sort of material being made for its target market, but I can imagine the frustration of a serious female fan looking for some representation of their hobby in a series such as FAG, and only finding further sexualization of their role in the mecha world. It reinforces the feeling of the lack of such representation in the world of anime overall.

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We have female bodies adapting to male minds in Build Fighters, and female bodies catering for primarily male perversions in FAG; but the world of anime isn’t wholly lacking in gear-loving girls given sincere representation. The first series of Dominion Tank Police, a string of OVAs adapted in 1988 from the 1986 Dominion manga, tells the story of Leona as she is transferred from the motorcycle cops to the male-dominated ‘Tank Police’ – – a haphazard force that has as much concern for the destruction of public property as they do for hostage safety –  and is forced to adapt. How she adapts is enthralling, and the series brings questions of gendering the love of machines directly into its storytelling.

Leona’s a newcomer, but she’s not naïve when it comes to machines. Yet, the misogyny she faces as she tries to find her place becomes quickly integral to her character. After  wrecking his ‘Tank Special’ during her first outing, squad leader Brenten ostracizes her whole gender from the Tank Police. Driving tanks and making them massive, to Brenten, is a ‘male thing’. We see him force his kind of masculinity further when he challenges Leona to a ‘duel’. But as his men hold him back and allow Leona to defiantly storm out, his essentialization of manly ‘tradition’ already looks like an empty philosophy.

This all sets up our heroine as someone who will problematize the masculine norm of the Tank Police. Leona’s appearance is androgynous, and her behavior alternates between ‘male’ and ‘female’ codes without prompt. Even her name comes into this debate – it derives from lion, the ‘king of the jungle’ stereotype for patriarchal power, while also bearing reference to Napoleon, which the name of her tank cements. When Leona makes ‘Bonaparte’ out of parts from the busted Tank Special, with help from love interest Al’Cu Ad Solte (who notably shares an equal load of the work with her), Brenten calls the reconstruction of his massive machine a ‘toy’, reciprocating the idea of girls in industries merely ‘playing’ with the things men make. Though he lets her make the tank, he plans to have her reduced to a desk job for breaking his prized possession – ignoring the fact he destroys the city around him on a daily basis. His power-plays against Leona reveal more fragility to his macho manliness than actual authority.

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Later, as the men of his squad chase after the villains of the series, Buaku and the Puma twins, they’re waylaid by – oh, the irony – giant inflatable dicks. They spring up from the road too fast for the tanks to roll over the flat panels they erect from unscathed. It’s not the first time these criminals have taken the ‘male’-ness Brenten is so proud of and weaponized it against the police; they used a strip-tease to trick men surrounding them into lowering their guard. The Puma twins were, after all, created to be ‘love dolls’; their rebellion into crime is also a turning-of-the-tables when it comes to masculine power over women. It’s the femme fatale stereotype in one sense, but the giant inflatable dicks emphasize that it’s the men who are undoing themselves.

Yet, Bonaparte goes over the dick-traps with ease, being lighter and faster than all of the regulation Tanks. There may be some stereotype of femininity here; the girl is more graceful, and can overcome obstacles that men with their love of things massive can’t. But it would be more productive to read Leona as being satisfied with smaller things purely on a professional level. She comes from the motorcycle cops, preferring speed and efficiency over how impressive something looks. Her tank is small enough to not cause disruptions to the street, while Brenten’s Tank Special and the giant patrol tanks of the Tank Police are always shown making rubble out of the city they’re said to protect. This cycles back to the very opening of the series; the police chief’s demand for more firepower, while the Mayor knows how much more destruction the Tank Police will cause.https://i2.wp.com/operationrainfall.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Dominion-Tank-Police-Screen-3.png

Dominion offers an inversion to what we see in Build Fighters. While Gundam gets painted as a world where men understand the function of their machines the most, in the Tank Police it’s the men that are going for style over substance. Leona’s Tank is far more fitted to her job than any of the regulation machines – doubly so when we consider the gigantic Tank Special, which Brenten relinquished control of over just one bump on the road.

Even when Leona is ‘captured’ towards the end of the series, she remains to have agency and an active, developing character to everything she does. As Buaku is revealed to be more of a victim than an offender, it’s worth thinking how Brenten is too a victim of the ‘tradition’ that’s been passed down to him. As much as it oppresses women out of his force, it also holds him back from being useful in society. The city crumbles around him and his men while they keep to this idea of ‘the bigger the better’; if Brenten had a tank as big as he wanted, there’d be no city left to defend. Through Brenten’s foolish principles, and through Leona’s defiance of them, Dominion criticizes the kind of exclusive masculinity that makes a ruin of society around it while claiming manliness still needs to be bigger, even though it crumbles itself in the face of female authority.

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Furthering that, while the chief and all the men cower at being criticized for being too destructive, Leona actually stands up for them. She bears the burden of the whole squad’s destruction on her own back, and actually justifies it from her perspective. A city left intact is no city if criminals are able to run free, after all. Leona doesn’t just challenge the Tank Police’s masculinity with her more functional Bonaparte; she robs their bigness, their destructive tendencies, of the masculinity they ascribe to those things. She fixes herself as an androgynous icon that at no point genders any kind of behaviour in the series. Destroying things isn’t a manly thing; it’s just something the police have to do sometimes. The police that she’s fully part of.

As a male anime fan, putting myself in the position of Leona is far more interesting than the self-serving identification the women of Build Fighters and FAG provide; I can imagine the show is a much better experience for women watching as well, giant inflatable dicks and all. Dominion looks very old by today’s standards, but it has a stance I’ll be looking out for more in each new season: technology has no gender. Technology needs no gender. The more the Brentens of the world understand that, the more progress we can make.

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References:

  • Galbraith,Patrick W. and Lamarre, Thomas, “Otakuology: A Dialogue” in Mechademia, Vol. 5 (2010) pp. 360-374
  • Morikawa, Kaichiro, “おたく/ Otaku / Geek.” in Working Words: New Approaches to Japanese Studies (2012)
  • LaMarre, Thomas, The Anime Machine: a media theory of animation (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2009)

This article was another Patron request! All donations help me fund possible expenses from my research, and also contribute towards upgrading the tech at my disposal.

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5 thoughts on “Girls and Gears: The Problems with Male Mechaphilia”

    1. It may be a result of the ‘cool Japan’ era; being ‘cool’ and ‘Asian’ has been coloured with, well, wearing bright colours. Tokyo is still sort of the neon capital after all. Not sure how ‘Western’ colouring your hair is though; feels more like an act of moving beyond yourself, which connects to how anime characters have such hair so often to express mukokuseki.

      Only thing I really disagree with in that article is the conflation of that trope with Knives Chau, who donned the colour streak expecting it would make her look ‘cooler’ to the white guys. The story makes it pretty clear that it’s more of a critique of the ‘edgy’ culture Asians are pressured into adopting than a promotion of that culture.

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  1. Great article, but I don’t like how you link female underrepresentation in tech to underlying pressures without really providing anything in the way of evidence beyond a handful of anecdotes, especially seeing as it’s your launching pad for the whole piece. You also tie those Twitter insults to gender when arguably that’s just a part of internet discourse gender notwithstanding. Do you really believe that guy told that woman to kill herself because simply she’s a woman? Or was it because he didn’t like her assertion? Obviously the kitchen comment is a lot more gendered, but you could just as easily chalk that up to wanting to use whatever ammo available to put someone down.

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    1. Death threats are mostly a product of the Online Disinhibition Effect and dissociative communication: but though that’s their main cause, they remain to help reveal windows people perceive as viable for such abuse; ‘ammo available’ is dictated by social structures and what people see as ‘Other’-able. I don’t think it’s any stretch to consider that as long as women remain the ‘Other’ in technology in terms of representation, we’ll have a much harder job making progress away from them being treated as the ‘Other’ on social media.

      The social media abuse is like Brenten’s abuse of Leona – it occurs partly because the abuser is a general jackass, but partly because they consider the marginalization of women an acceptable strategy when it comes to asserting their authority.

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